Monday, December 30, 2013

The Petrified Forest

“The Petrified Forest” (1936 - Archie Mayo) is famous as the film that made Bogart a movie star. Theatrical and full of high-flown rhetoric, the movie betrays its origins as a smash-hit Broadway play, a kind of middle-brow version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” with a gangster-tint. Bogart’s physical presence is impressive and frightening; he imitates John Dillinger’s slouch and ape-like walk and holds his arms flexed in front of him as if fettered by invisible handcuffs. He is the epitome of primitive menace but, it must be said, that he has not successfully adapted his stage persona to the screen -- every time he speaks, Bogart over-inflects, using precise clipped diction that probably was effective on Broadway but that makes it seem as if he has learned his lines phonetically. By contrast, Leslie Howard is fluent, if annoying, and makes his quasi-Shakespearian speeches seem almost plausible. Unlike Bogart, he under-acts, recognizing that less is more in film -- this is a Erich Maria Remarque and several important scenes turn on the poetry of Francois Villon, improbably celebrated in America in the Twenties and Thirties. (Why? I presume on the basis of the influence of Ezra Pound -- but does anyone read Villon in translation nowadays?) The play was allegorical: An English writer, filled with self-loathing at his failure as an artist, is wandering the Arizona desert, apparently, looking for a place to die. He stumbles into a comically isolated road-house occupied by an American Legionnaire, his old coot father, a desert rat who claims he once dodged a bullet shot by Billy the Kid, a burly ex-Football player named Boze, and a half-French waitress yearning to escape the mesas and sand dunes for Paris. The girl is played by Bette Davis. She spurns the Neanderthal affections of the football-player and falls hard for the peripatetic British intellectual (Leslie Howard), primarily, it seems, because he recognizes in her a fellow artist. After about 50 minutes of scene-setting and character development, the film shifts from a rather static allegory about the decline and fall of the West into a gangster picture when Bogart and his gang of desperadoes takes everyone hostage at the roadhouse. Bogart plays Duke Mantee, a bad hombre who has massacred six people in Oklahoma City and who has come to the isolated BBQ joint and gas-station near the Petrified Forest to wait for his dame. Apparently, the woman is captured and betrays the location of their rendezvous resulting in a final, unconvincing shoot-out. “The Petrified Forest”symbolizes the ossification of ideals, the stultification of artist impulses, the repression of authentic emotion, and the post-World War One malaise that followed a conflict that discredited most aspects of European civilization. All of this is suggested by the dialogue that is hyper-theatrical and completely unrealistic. To my eyes, the best thing about the picture, other than Bogart’s brutish cave-man posturing, is the old desert rat’s insouciance --- he tells everyone that a real killer can be identified by the way that he presses his lower jaw and chin back against his breast-bone and, sure enough, when Bogart appears, armed to the teeth, he displays that physiognomy. A sagebrush rolls disconsolately across the dusty-looking set, the flashing neon light that says BBQ blinks on and off during the final shoot-out and lonesome desert winds howl throughout the entire picture. The adobe ramparts of the Roadhouse are filmed against obviously painted backdrops, with saguaro cactus gesturing at imaginary cream-puff clouds above tall, jagged mountains -- it’s so unreal as to be slightly surrealistic.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Silver Load

The Western “Silver Load” (1954) seems conceived as a rejoinder to Fred Zinneman’s “High Noon” made two years earlier. Allan Dwan, the director of “Silver Load”, cut his teeth in the silent era; he was a yeoman film-maker, a Hollywood studio salary-man, and his movies are generally regarded as uninmaginative and pedestrian. “Silver Load” is woodenly acted and some of the dialogue is stiff and contrived -- the principal characters are stereotypes and the movie is decidedly low on expressive atmospherics: the lighting is flat, uniform, and blandly expository and there are no exciting horse chases through badlands, in fact, no sense at all of figures moving through grandiose terrain, the hallmark of most famous and well-remembered Westerns. As with “High Noon,” the entire story takes place in a dull village, neither too dusty nor dirty, a plywood and two-by-four hamlet of small houses, modest public buildings and storefronts, centered around a wood-frame church with steeple. The plot approximates the situation of “High Noon” and, like that film, maintains an Aristotelian unity of time and action -- the movie takes place in real time over the course of ninety-or-so minutes all within the confines of the village. When the hero, stolidly played by an inert John Payne, bargains for two hours reprieve from being lynched, we grasp that this period of time will represent, more or less, the length of the movie. Remarkably, however, “Silver Load” is well-scripted and, in fact, packed with far more interesting moral and ethical dilemmas than the rather more schematic (if better made) “High Noon” -- the ideas in “Silver Load” are more complex and the film is far more profound and realistic about human behavior and issues relating to law and order. Unfortunately, the acting is weak, the mise-en-scene lacks ingenuity, and “Silver Load” has been forgotten, despite its excellent and ingenious script, because the implementation of its ideas is flawed: it doesn’t have a big star like Gary Cooper, and there is nothing like Dmitri Tiomkins famous score to underline the important moments in Dwan’s movie. The situation is this: four outlaws ride into Silver Load, a remote Nevada village, looking for a prominent local citizen. It’s the Fourth of July and the prominent man’s wedding day. The outlaws are revealed to have a search warrant and seem to be Federal Marshals. Notwithstanding their apparent credentials. the town folk instinctively side with the prominent citizen, a man who appeared mysteriously in the village two years earlier with $20,000 and who seems to have purchased not only the loyalty, but the love, of the villagers. Far from deserting the hero, the townspeople rally enthusiastically to his defense and, in fact, seem willing to massacre the Federal Marshals, who are vindictive and sinister, to protect their friend. The hero sets about to prove that he is innocent of the charges asserted against him by the marshals. But these efforts are thwarted and, ultimately, there is some gunplay resulting in the death of the local sheriff and a couple of his deputies. We understand that the hero is, in fact, innocent of the federal charges lodged against him -- charges that are merely a pretense to get him out of town to by “dry-gulched” by the assassins impersonating law enforcement officers. What makes this interesting is a series of cunningly maintained ambiguities -- we don’t really know anything about the hero’s background. The imposter marshal yanks the man out of a prosperous house on the day of the hero’s marriage to a local dignitary’s daughter -- the bride seems rather stiff, prudish, and unpleasant (she’s also not particularly attractive and spends the movie prancing around in an unbecoming wedding dress.) The local people seem much too willing to defend the hero and, then, of course, after a few townsfolk are shot, they switch sides and become a ravening mob, seeking to gun him down. The hero doesn’t hesitate to shoot local citizens who are trying to kill him and, in fact, on several occasions takes hostages and uses them as human shields to protect him from the mob’s gunfire. Indeed, the man defined as the “good guy” by the movie shoots his future brother-in-law and threatens to kill his father-in-law by shooting him in the back. In the end, the mob’s violence is averted by a transparent lie, establishing very effectively that the townsfolk are completely irrational, driven by blood-lust, blind loyalty, and hysteria. The film moves quickly. It even has a bravura action sequence -- a long continuous tracking shot that shows the wounded hero fleeing across the entire village, running through alleys and past several blocks of buildings, all the while under fire by villagers who are gunning for him -- the sequence is effective because so simply filmed and choreographed; a viewer might even accuse Dwan of laziness in the way that he stages this episode, simply tracking the hero as he staggers and runs through the town for two or three minutes -- but the result is undeniably exciting.. “Silver Load” isn’t beautiful and has no nostalgia for the Old West -- it is, in fact, purely sociological in its study of mob dynamics, but the movie is ambitious and thought-provoking. If film were primarily a medium for expression of ideas, "Silver Load," which is smarter than "High Noon" would be a better movie -- but, alas, film's aren't primarily about ideas...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Out of the Past

Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 erotic-thriller, “Out of the Past” is highly regarded. The picture presents Robert Mitchum at his most inexpressive and iconic and there is a bevy of hard-boiled dames almost comically enraptured by him. The dialogue is rat-a-tat-tat epigrams, double distilled tough-guy demotic that is poetically concise and expressive. The opening fifteen minutes are brilliant -- a remote, dusty village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a mysterious stranger chatting-up a hatchet-faced café waitress and, then, a deaf kid, like the figure of doom in a Fritz Lang silent film, gesturing mysteriously at Mitchum that his bucolic idyll is over and done and that he must, now, depart for the hell of the cities. Similarly, the film’s final ten minutes are impressive, cleverly closing the loop on the narrative in an effective and dramatic fashion; the deaf and dumb kid appears again, there is a killing in a tight little canyon made from granite slabs, and a shoot-out at a barricade on a mountain road in the darkness. This is thrilling and the camera placement, editing, and coolly dispassionate and analytical camera-work are all models of Hollywood craftsmanship. But I have never warmed to this film and, despite critical accolades, don’t much like this picture. Like many proto-film noir pictures, the movie’s plot is too complicated to keep in mind and the serpentine narrative doesn’t make much sense. And Tourneur’s obsession with Mitchum’s rhomboid silhouette, the inverted pyramid of his torso wrapped in a trench-coat and narrowing to his wasp-waist, his hat tilted slightly to one side, results in a curiously static and abstract second, third, and fourth acts in this five-part melodrama. After the first quarter hour, Tourneur clearly loses interest in his convoluted plot with its many betrayals and various rear-projected locations -- the action movies from the high Sierra to New York to Mexico to San Francisco and LA. This part of the film is perfunctory and fantastically repetitious visually: whenever possible, Tourneur shoots Mitchum from the rear and seems fascinated by his gait and stride. More than half of the film seems to consist of shots of Mitchum stalking from one place to another, opening doors, and, then, engaging in conversations, usually shot from behind with the image focusing on the actor’s absurdly broad shoulders, his mask-like and impassive profile, and the trapezoid-like silhouette that he casts as he hustles down dim corridors or hides (implausibly in light of his bulk) behind bushes or doors or on terraces overlooking San Francisco Bay where we always see in the distance the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge. Tourneur’s camera mimics the gaze of his three female leads -- each woman focusing her attention on seducing Mitchum. Mitchum’s torso, indeed, is a splendiferous thing, but, I’m afraid, not sufficiently expressive to compel my attention for a solid hour devoted to its stony charms. But, in the film’s defense, I must admit that we get to hear Mitchum intone these words near the end of the picture: “Build my gallows high, baby,” lighting one of a thousand cigarettes smoked in the film and, then, snapping aside the match with a gesture so beautifully casual that it almost compensates for the tedium.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Lucy (Ann Baxter) in Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” tells a parable to her father played by Joseph Cotton. She pretends that her parable recounts an old Indian legend called “They Couldn’t Help Themselves” -- purportedly the name of the place where the tragic tale took place. In the story, Lucy says that there was a young Indian so proud that “he wore iron shoes so that he could walk on the faces of people.” Lucy and her father are posed against a velvet grey sky, fringed by the mournful-looking fronds, a kind of morbid Victorian tableaux like many of the images in the film. The scene is a sequence-shot -- everything done in a single extended take. (It is hard to determine whether this mise-en-scene is a result of Welles’ intentions or whether these sequences were simply incomplete, someone editing the film together from master-shots and not taking the time to insert close-ups and images showing the character’s reactions to one another. Certainly, the sound is dead throughout much of the movie: it has the inert tonal quality of a dubbed European film, something by Fellini with raw-sounding American voices bullying the subtle and elegant pictures.) The rhetoric about pride and people’s faces being crushed by iron shoes is startlingly brutal but consistent with most of the film. “The Magnificent Ambersons” is not as popular as “Citizen Kane” because the film is far more harsh, indeed, in some scenes almost unbearably cruel. The long takes, sometimes, erupting into hysteria (usually featuring Agnes Moorhead as the thwarted Aunt Fanny) have an inescapable, inexorable quality -- you can’t look away although what you are seeing is horrendous. Welles’ stages the picture as a nightmare: décor overwhelms the actors -- on the great stairs, the tragic protagonists, Georgie (Tim Holt)and Aunt Fanny, both virtuosi of taut hysteria, are shot against a savage cubist collage of finials, angular stairs and indescribably complex jigsaw forms of timber and strut, all bathed in the deepest and most funereal shadow. Coffered ceilings bear down on the characters like the force of destiny and the heavy cornices of the houses, the squat columns of the banks and the finicky roof-lines and gables all shape the landscape into a vast cemetery, a huge mausoleum. The interiors of the Amberson mansion are clogged with inky darkness, and Welles films many scenes in chiaroscuro so dense that his characters are visible only as moving clots of shadow. Darkness falls like drapery from the ceilings where immense chandeliers squat like malevolent spiders and, sometimes, peoples’ faces and chests are obscured by black bars, like dark bands worn around the upper arm to signify mourning. In the early scenes, supposedly showing people happy in their wealth and Victorian certitudes, everyone talks at the same time and each scene is frenzy of action and counter-action, sequences filmed contrapuntally unlike the more explicitly tragic content to follow -- those images shot in mortuary crepe and silks, dark, motionless, embalmed. Welles’ boldness is to show two generations ruined by a single instant, the moment when a drunken suitor intent upon a serenade stumbles, falls through his bass violin, destroying it on the lawn -- this sudden image, lasting only a second, followed by a close-up of a woman’s white face contorted with shame. From this single instant, the entire tragedy, then, evolves, a scene shot like farce, a throwaway that turns out to carry the key to the whole calamity that we see unfolding as the movie progresses. Everyone in the film is doomed by pride: the heiress to the Amberson fortunes ruins her life because she can’t marry a man who has made a public fool of himself (the incident with the string bass), Georgie, her son, thwarts his mother’s happiness out of misguided pride in preserving the family name, and Lucy, who loves Georgie, is too proud to risk rejection and declare herself to the man she loves -- instead, she smiles idiotically at him as he pleads for some sign of affection from her, keeps smiling and, then, as he departs, rushes into a pharmacy to collapse on the floor in a swoon. Everyone knows what they must do to achieve happiness and everyone also knows that their pride will never allow them to take those measures, that they will doom themselves to misery -- the machinery of their pride, the terrible furniture of their disastrous arrogance are those cornices, those chandeliers, the heavy woodwork, the great ornamental stair case leading up toward steeples of irredeemable darkness.

Friday, December 27, 2013

American Hustle

In David O. Russell's previous film, “Silver Linings Playbook,” we are informed at one point that a series of apparently fortuitous meetings between principal characters (the romantic leads played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) have been engineered by a minor character, the hero’s mother. This intelligence is delivered in a short speech extraneous to the action and explains something that the audience simply took for granted. In the context of that film, a highly effective and compelling movie, this stray bit of exposition seemed misguided, too much explanation and too little ability to leave well enough alone with respect to plotting. “American Hustle” displays the same characteristics, albeit on a more grandiose and ambitious scale -- that is, the film, about 2 1/2 hours long seems to be almost all exposition. Russell directs a script that is fantastically complex, involving various betrayals and confidence games against a setting of political corruption -- the movie is about machinations to bring mafia money to refurbish Atlantic City casinos -- and the film is highly lucid with respect to all of its many, intricate plot points. But, as a consequence, most of the film is an elaborate exercise in providing useful narrative information to the audience: we have not one but two voice-overs, a rather jarring device that suggests novelistic omniscience, but which is conveniently dropped when it is necessary to mystify the audience about plot developments intended to be suspenseful. Whole characters, for instance, the hapless FBI handler who interacts with Bradley Cooper’s field agent (played well by Louis C. K.) exist primarily as devices for imparting information to the viewer. Accordingly, it is a surprise when a minor character -- for instance the bureaucrat played by Louis C. K. -- is given some important lines and, even, a subplot that causes us to sympathize with the man. The tension in “American Hustle” is between David O. Russell’s persnickety and overly explicit plotting and his generosity to his actors -- everyone gets good lines and emotionally affecting scenes. This creates a curiously decentered narrative, a plot that is like a 19th century novel, polyphonic with many independent centers of interest. Russell and his screenwriter have so many clever ideas, so many interesting twists to their characters, that the script is exceedingly loquacious and the film too long -- as in “Silver Linings Playbook”, everyone talks continuously, usually at high amplification, and with a continuous stream of invective or threats or pleading (people are constantly importuning one another for this and that, usually sex or money). Most good lines are repeated two or three times; people argue for the sake of argument and there is lots of broad Italian “commedia dell’Arte” buffonery, hectoring wives, lovesick suitors, malicious and beautiful femmes fatale (not merely one but two or even three) all interacting with slapstick energy and farcical ferocity that was probably time-honored and antique in the 17th century. The first half of the film seems a homage to Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”, the plot involving various forms of dishonesty committed by Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) , a small-time con-man and his girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a lovely woman whose principal assets, the cream-white and perfectly shaped sides of her breasts always displayed to their best advantage, distract the hapless marks who fall into their clutches. Like Warren Beatty’s McCabe in Altman’s film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, Rosenfeld is a nickel-and-dime operator with delusions of grandeur, a man who fancies himself a criminal mastermind while he is really the pawn of the women with whom he is involved. Rosenfeld’s relationship with the luscious Prosser (who pretends to be an English heiress and peer) quickly leads him into fraud with frighteningly high-stakes when he is press-ganged by the FBI into luring mobsters and senators into bribery in the ABSCAM sting, an entrapment operation that has as its primary target, Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. The second half of the film raises a number of interesting moral issues -- the hero, after all, is a kind of Judas, a man who entraps others into corruption and, then, betrays them. The film is Scorsese-lite -- that is, a crime and caper comedy without the gravitas that accompanied “Goodfellas” or, even, “Casino”. Russell has to figure out a way to make palatable the treachery of his main character and, to his credit, he doesn't really succeed -- Rosenfeld’s betrayals are painful to watch: many of the corrupt politicians seem to be genuinely concerned about improving the economy of the Garden State (while lining their pockets) and Carmine Polito, in particular, is portrayed as a victim not a perpetrator. Russell is a tremendous director of women and the energy in the film arises primarily from the duel between Rosenfeld’s wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and his mistress, Sydney. The tension between the two women is beautifully portrayed and reaches a spectacular climax in a long scene in the middle of the movie when both girlfriend and wife attend a dinner party with mobsters in Atlantic City. All of the characters are on-screen in these scenes (including an uncredited Robert DeNiro as the big crime boss from Miami) and this episode, replete with erotic and comic fireworks, all presented in an atmosphere of lush corruption and menace, is the film’s climax. The erotic energy discharges when Rosenfeld’s wife kisses Sydney on the lips, completely confounding her and reversing the film’s emotional polarity -- we have been schooled to regard the wife as passive and helpless and the mistress as scheming and deadly; this scene inverts our understanding of the main characters and the acting by the women is incendiary, it lights up the screen. Unfortunately, the movie still has an hour to go and the last twenty minutes or so drag a little -- it’s an example of a film prematurely climaxing. “American Hustle” is state of the art adult film making -- it’s always intelligent and brilliantly acted; the camera-work is Scorsese-vibrant with slow-motion and many sequences scored to vintage rock and roll. There are hundreds of yards of cleavage on display in this film -- every woman wears exceptionally décolleté blouses and dresses -- and the whole thing is raucously amusing. I don’t think it’s likely to be the best movie of the year. But the picture is certainly wonderfully entertaining.

The Last Stand

At the climax of Kim Jee-Woon’s “The Last Stand,” the sheriff of a small town faces a Mexican cartel leader on a narrow bridge spanning a canyon. The Mexican bad guy has escaped from Federal authorities and, with an army of henchmen, has killed about a hundred American law enforcement officers in his escape through the desert Southwest to Mexico. If the cartel leader can cross the bridge, he will be south of the Border and so, presumably, beyond the jurisdiction of the United States. The sheriff is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and so, it is pretty obvious to everyone that there is no possible way that this bad hombre will make it to Mexico. Nonetheless, the somewhat scrawny, albeit handsome, cartel gangster gives it the old college try, valiantly attempting to force his way past the craggy man-mountain that is the ex-Terminator. First, of course, the gangster and Schwarzenegger have to exchange a few words, a little bit of dialogue before the gruesome fisticuffs: the cartel leader, resplendent in head-to-toe black says: “12,000 Mexicans cross this border going north every day. I’m just one Mexican who wants to go back to Mexico. Surely, you can look the other way.” This seems an eminently reasonably request but Schwarzenegger is offended. He tosses a ridiculously flimsy, girlish-looking set of handcuffs toward the rattlesnake-skin boots of the Narco and says: “I’m the sheriff. Put on the cuffs or I’ll make you put them on.” “Just say the word,” the bad guy replies, ”and I will deposit five-million dollars in your bank account.” (At this point, the audience cringes; only five million? Arnold S-- gets paid a salary ten times that sum.) Schwartzenegger declines the offer, muttering: “Your kind makes all of us immigrants look bad.” This is the best moment in the movie and the only reason to spend 100 minutes with this film. Until these lines are spoken, Schwarzenegger is so quintessentially American, so densely and totally identified with the American action film that it comes as a surprise to the audience to think of their hero as someone who has immigrated to this country. Indeed, up to this point in the film, we haven’t even noticed Schwarzenegger’s heavy accent and his weirdly alien features -- as he ages, Schwartzenegger sounds more and more like a beefed-up version of Werner Herzog, and, I think, he is even beginning to resemble the German filmmaker, who, in turn, now looks just like my (long-deceased) dour, tight-lipped Grandma Beckmann nee Zeilinger. Suddenly, we remember that the poor gangster is about to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Arnold Schwarzenegger, once the governor of California and the veteran of a thousand battles of this kind and the only logical response is to salute the gallantry of the poor bad guy about to get his ass royally and inevitably kicked. This perverse response -- that is, admiring the tenacity and courage of the doomed bad guy -- is emblematic of my topsy-turvy, upside-down reaction to the entire film. At the outset, an old codger is threatened by a suave heavily armed villain. The villain is polite and persuasive -- he wants to reason with the malevolent old coot played by an uncredited Harry Dean Stanton. The bad guy offers the codger money if he will help the villains erect the bridge across the Rio Grande canyon. The curmudgeonly old man draws a shotgun (everyone in this picture is heavily armed) and shoots at the villain’s feet. This is completely rude, uncalled-for, and barbaric. So, when the army of malefactors blasts the old man, we feel that this is somehow justified -- after all, the old fool pulled a gun first in the defense of his wretched property and fired the first wholly unnecessary shot. Later, the handsome and enterprising cartel leader stages a spectacular escape from federal custody -- he is facing the death sentence, a barbaric aspect of America’s medieval justice system. With his henchmen, great numbers of FBI agents are gunned down, and any rational person has to be rooting for the outlaws -- you can never kill enough federal agents in my view and it would be nice if the army of villains could also take on, for a good measure, the idiotic and sadistic waterboarding CIA and, maybe, the vicious NSA as well. Throughout the picture, you are hoping against hope that the charismatic bad guys will prevail against Schwarzenegger and his army of four (which includes the moronic Johnny Knoxville of “Jackass” fame as a 2nd Amendment crazy). Everything is turned the wrong way -- the Mexican hordes are trying to escape back to Mexico; the American hero is trying to keep them in this country. The film is reasonably entertaining so long as you don’t expect the action sequences to make much sense -- they are cut too fast and too incoherently and the big battle in the little border village, obviously derived from ”The Seven Samurai” (and “The Magnificent Seven”) doesn’t make any sense because no time has been allotted to introducing us to several villagers who play an important role in the combat and because there have been no establishing shots to define the geometry of the battlefield. The script is a mash-up of “The Fast and the Furious” -- there is a really fast car with magical qualities (it can go backward at a speed of several hundred miles per hour and rides smoothly over rough terrain as if on a cushion of air) -- and “Rio Bravo” (a drunk and disorderly Iraq war vet is freed from jail and deputized to help fight the bad guys.) About a dozen other films are ineptly cited throughout the movie -- there are overtones of “ Bad Day at Black Rock”, “The Road Warrior”, and various Walter Hill pictures. But nothing is quite right -- for instance, the big fistfight on the bridge to Mexico devolves into professional wrestling lunging and flipping and body-slamming (with a ”sleeper” hold and a move involving a leg-scissors grip on someone’s neck), combat choreography that is more embarrassing than exciting and every heroic gesture gets repeated a couple of times: twice, for instance, Arnold S-- has to pull a massive blade (glass in one case and a knife in the other) from the same blood-soaked thigh. I mean, really?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Russian Ark

Best to confess at the outset, confused and contradictory reactions to Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 “Russian Ark.” I suppose this reaction is warranted because “Russian Ark” is insanely ambitious, an attempt to embody the entire destiny of Europe in one film, and, what’s more, one single gargantuan tracking shot. The film’s cyclopean edifice, St. Petersberg’s Hermitage Palace, contains thousands of extras, the greatest paintings in the world, several theaters that seem to be simultaneously presenting ballet and opera, as well as madmen, sailors, Tsars and Tsarinas, and angels; the film’s credits include 12 wigmakers, dozens of ballroom dance coaches, experts in 19th century Tsarist court protocol, and Martin Scorsese. Briefly (and baldly) stated, Sokurov’s thesis is that Russia may not have been wholly European at the time of Peter the Great and the erection of the Hermitage in the northern swamps. But by 1913, Russia and its monarchy epitomized the last of Europe, its final flowering and the spiritual heirs to the cultural and intellectual treasures of the continent. This legacy is somehow preserved in the “Russian Ark,” that is, the Hermitage collections and its ghost-haunted imperial colonnades and ballrooms. Sokurov’s majestic 93 minute Steadi-cam shot ends with a procession of thousands of brilliantly costumed members of the Russian aristocracy descending an enormous stairway -- the image seems somehow designed to echo, and act as restitution, for Eisenstein’s famous Odessa steps sequence at the inception of the Soviet era in “The Battleship Potemkin.” At the base of the stairway, which occupies acres of terraced marble, there is a vast vaulted hallway and the crowds of glittering nobles and noblewomen, resplendent in pearls and ostrich plumes, parts as the camera races ahead of them, ending with a shot through a doorway that opens onto a vast grey and featureless sea. Sokurov’s ghostly narrator, his unseen Dante touring the Hermitage galleries, remarks enigmatically that the people haunting the Hermitage will live forever -- something, of course, that we know to be untrue, at least in a literal sense. (In one exceptionally beautifully lit and choreographed passage, we have seen girls dressed in Grecian robes dancing down a great marble hallway -- one of the lovely nymphs is the Tsar’s daughter, Anastasia.) It is hard to reconcile the opposites held together by the film: Russia is profoundly Asiatic and, yet, at the same time, the great final repository of European values; the aristocrats that we see flowing like the waters of Niagara over the huge glacier of marble steps are all doomed and, yet, Sokurov tells us that they will live forever; the Hermitage is an ark preserving both the most glorious art work ever made, paintings by Rembrandt and Poussin, Rubens and El Greco, and, yet, also curates the horrors of the 20th century -- in one chilling scene, we are shown a wintry storage room, huge like everything else in the film, and told that this is where caskets were made during the Siege of Leningrad in which a million people died; the narrator, who stands in for Sokurov, it seems, knows this and warns his interlocutor not to enter this frigid and deadly space. The interlocutor, apparently a French philosophe, steps into the cold zone of empty frames and caskets to encounter a man driven mad by famine who bellows at him that he is walking across a terrain of corpses. And, indeed, there are other horrors in the Hermitage -- in one scene, Peter the Great apparently sentences his son to death; in another scene, set sometime in the Stalinist era, the museum’s administrators debate whether they are under surveillance by the authorities. It is curious and inexplicable to me that our tour guide for our trip through the Hermitage is not a Russian at all but a gaunt. Voltaire-like Frenchman, a fellow who says that Pushkin is “nothing special” and marvels at the fact that he is somehow able to speak such fluent Russian. I presume that Sokurov needed an interlocutor, someone to talk to his ghostly narrator (who wakes up from darkness, vaguely recalling an accident, and finds himself at the door to the Hermitage). Furthermore, I assume that the man’s status as a “stranger” -- the way he is identified in the credits -- allows the narrator to provide exposition, that is, to tell the interlocutor, things that have to explained but that would otherwise go unspoken. But still the device is puzzling: why this diplomat from the Congress of Venice? Why does he prance and dance around in some scenes? Why does he puff out his cheeks and engage in a “blowing” contest with a page-boy? These are episodes, among several, that I simply can’t understand. And, of course, the film’s amazing narrative style, a single unbroken 93 minute take involving thousands of extras and every conceivable kind of space and light -- there are scenes shot in back staircases in almost complete darkness, opera imagery staged by candelabra, modern galleries lit by electric lights, and, finally, glacial-blue outdoor scenes when the camera passes between wings of the vast building -- this famous and confounding “mise-en-scene” poses the greatest riddle of all. Why does Sokurov choose to shoot the film in a single take? Certainly, this stylistic device doesn’t clarify the space that the camera moves across -- to the contrary, the interior of the Hermitage is a maze, an impossibly complex labyrinth comprised of a warren of tight, dim rooms opening into half-mile vistas down great marble corridors. We are immediately trapped in the maze and have no sense how it fits together -- the camera motion is not persistently forward but, often, confusingly retrograde, moving forward and backward within galleries, tracking characters for a minute or so at a time only to lose them in the brocade and alabaster distances of the palace. I presume Sokurov intends the tracking motion to make palpable to idea that a single building can be an ark -- that is, the magically vast and commodious receptacle of everything that is wise and beautiful and wonderful about European civilization. But the concept is more expressive in theory than practice and, as we marvel at Sokurov’s technical acumen, we are also baffled by the enormous waste of energy invested in the artifice -- why not do as Hitchcock did in “Rope” and hide a few cuts in the dark spaces between galleries? Sokurov’s point, I suppose, is organic -- one of the triumphs of the West and Europe is film and the art-film in particular and for the ark to contain all of Europe’s culture and achievements (and all of its misery as well) film and film technique must be represented. As with Tarkovsky, I sense that for Russian film makers, the long takes are a necessary counter-balance to Eisenstein’s fast editing and dialectical montage -- but it would seem that the point could be made in some way that is less intrusive and exhausting.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ashes and Diamonds

"Ashes and Diamonds" begins with a spasm of violence. Three gunmen are lounging around on meadow near a small rural chapel. A jeep comes down the dirt path and the gunmen ambush the vehicle, spraying it with machine-gun fire. One of the passengers in the jeep escapes and tries to hide in the chapel. He is shot down at such close-range that the muzzle-flash from the machine gun lights his shoulders on fire. In the reverse shot, however, the falling man does not appear to be ablaze. Thus, from the very outset of Andrzej Wajda's 1958 film, the viewer is confronted with a carefully visualized, apparently realistic, historical drama that has distinct, and, even, baroque, symbolic trappings. It is the last day of World War II in Europe, May 8, 1945 and, although the Nazis have ben expelled from Poland, bloody conflict continues in the form of a Civil War between right-wing resistance fighters and Communist guerillas. The gunmen have shot and killed the two men in the jeep thinking that they were Communist officials. In fact, victims of the ambush were an advance party. A few moments later, we see Commissar Szczuka, the intended target, followed by workers from a cement plant. Szczuka speaks to the men standing over the two dead bodies and asks the workers what kind of Poland they want to form now that the war is ending. The assassins follow Szczuka to town and, in fact, the most unpredictably violent of the three, Maciek, checks into the Monopol Hotel where the Communist commissar is also staying. The Monopol is the heavily symbolic and theatrical venue for the remainder of the film's action. The town's new Mayor is planning a lavish banquet to celebrate the end of the war as well as his election. All ranks and orders in Polish society gather at the hotel and the banquet becomes a noisy, and drunken, microcosm for the nation. Outside on the dark streets, fighting continues among huge posters showing Comrade Stalin's benevolent face -- tanks rumble by and soldiers are marching and Szczuka's own son, a youth about Maciek's age (and symbolically equated to Maciek), also an opponent of the Communists has been captured by the garrison of troops defending the twon. Maciek, who has the charisma of James Dean, is a rebel who has lost faith in his cause -- when he sees the widow of one of the men that he has just killed wailing in a flat across the ventilation shaft from his hotel room, he suffers a crisis of conscience. (Many of the scenes in the hotel are staged in a very theatrical style in an implausibly confined space in which all of the film's allegorical figures are closely confined; the movie resembles one of Max Beckmann's late triptychs -- symbolic figures mashed together with a variety of props demonstrating the meanings of the allegorical characters: there is a crucified Jesus upside down in an adjacent church, a "lower depths" toilet to which the characters sometimes retire defended by an old an crone, various weapons including ceremonial swords, as well trumpets and other musical instruments, a white horse that inexplicably appears in one scene, and a big gramophone similar to those that inhabit some of the German painter's canvases.) Maciek seduces a bar-maid and there is a love scene composed in huge close-ups that dissolve into one another. In a crypt the bar-maid deciphers an elegy written on a tomb, something about the flames of the present converting us into either ash or diamond -- and in Wajda's scenario, the lovely bar-maid, offering the hope of love, is clearly intended as a diamond. Maciek can not escape his destiny and he guns down Szczuka in the rubble-strewn street, a showy scene in which the Commissar's death is accompanied by great jets of fireworks shot into the night to celebrate the surrender of the Germans. By dawn, everyone is drunk and disheartened. The Mayor orders the disheveled band to play a polonaise and all the aristocrats, whom we know to be doomed, dance for a last time as the sun casts oblique rays throught the windows of the ramshackle Monopol. Maciek is gunned down and dies picturesquely scrambling across a vast field of garbage. The film is beautifully made. The photography resembles the camera-work in Fellini's films in the late fifties -- the focus is often almost surrealistically deep (we see a huge profile, someone in the middle of the room, and a tiny figure entering the image, perhaps, 100 feet away), the lighting is spectacular although unrealistic, also a characteristic of Wajda's "Kanal" with expresssionistic chiaroscuro and the final scenes bathed in a weird raking brilliance representing the new dawn. Wajda has said that his masters were Orson Welles and William Wyler (particularly "The Best Years of Our Lives") and the film is exquisitely shot and staged. To my taste, the banqueting scenes and some of the imagery are too insistently allegorical -- the imagery is overdetermined and we are always told what to think about it. This is probably a characteristic of Wajda's compromised situation in making this film -- clearly, Wajda is sympathetic to all elements of Polish society shown in the film and, although State censors, require that he portray the Commissar as the film's hero, it is pretty evident that the director's own perspective is deeply conflicted. Hence, I speculate that the overdetermined allegorical trappings to the picture both represent a Polish baroque sensibility that conceives reality in emblematic terms as well as an attempt to set up overt symbols that distract the viewer from Wajda's obviously divided sympathies.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


I saw Alexander Payne's elegaic "Nebraska" (2013) in Rochester, Minnesota with a small crowd of viewers not unlike many of the people portrayed in the film. In the Men's Room, two old guys stood at the urinals commenting on the film: "Didn't spend much money on sets, did they?" one guy said. His friend replied: "Nope, they didn't." This commentary is a typicl example of a backhanded Midwestern compliment -- the men's words were a tribute to the film's astounding realism. Indeed, in many ways, "Nebraska" carries the concept of realism in film to its logical, and, even, faintly absurd conclusion. Payne's actors seem to be local people and their language, at least as scripted (delivery is another matter) is pitch-perfect to the way that people talk on the high plains on Montana and rural Nebraska. The locations where the film was shot are precisely accurate to the small-towns dying in the heart of the great mid-continental prairies and the interiors, mostly bars and cafes and little houses decorated in a style that was archaic when I grew up in the early sixties are so exactly evocative as to be stunning. The audience at the screening that I attended, mostly elderly people (I count myself among their number) left the theat er in a sort of benumbed silence: I imagine that this was how people left showings of Lumiere brothers "Actualities" in 1896 -- amazed, that is, at seeing a reality that they understood and have experienced portrayed with loving precision on the screen. The ancient audience that supposedly leapt with fear at moving images of a train pulling into the station probably was frightened, not by the picture of the locomotive, but by the peculiar melancholy that we experience when we see ourselves and our peers and our world frozen in time when projected through a strip of celluloid -- the experience is a confrontation with our mortality: we understand that what we have seen will never change nor will it age, while, of course, we are always dying and will perish, leaving behind nothing but our shadows flickering on the screen. Of course, my reaction to the film is probably particularly intense because the movie's characters are specific and integral to my own life: my parents, who would be the age of the main actors in "Nebraska," were born and raised in central Nebraska and, when I was little, I often visited the little village where they had once lived and where our relatives were still farming -- even in the sixties and seventies, those little towns were terribly lonely and doomed, filled with old people too proud and stubborn to leave, but devoid of anyone young. If you had brains and ambition, you fled those places and left them to the kind of losers that populate Payne's film, at least as it depicts the next generation after the sons of theold pioneers and founding entrepreneurs. Some aspects of Payne's film strike so close to home that it is difficult for me to comment on them: a scene, for instance, in which an old woman provides a profane tour of an austere small-town graveyard, commenting particularly on the dead children and the traffic fatalities, replicates with extraordinary exactitude my own experiences -- elderly female relatives, usually a grandmother or an aunt, strolling from gravestone to gravestone, all the while providing ribald and tragic commentary on the deceased, a sort of perverse "Spoon River Anthology", and a catalog of scandal, calamity, and tragedy that always struck me as both tragic and, vaguely humorous. In fact, the cemetery is identical in all of its features to the place where my father is buried in Albion, Nebraska. "Nebraska" is a road picture. An old man, played by Bruce Dern, believes that he has won a sweepstakes and will be paid a million dollars if he can reach Lincoln, Nebraska. With his youngest son Davy driving, the old man, a lifelong drunk, sets off for Nebraska. Most of the narrative takes place in a tiny, desolate town called Hawthorne, the old man's ancestral home, and the location of an impromptu family reunion. The people in Hawthorne believe that the old alcoholic has, in fact, won the sweepstakes and this brings out both the best and worst in the villagers. Dern's character is dying and possibly suffering from dementia but he is stubborn and insists upon completing the trip to Lincoln. In a little office, a receptionist gives the old man a hat that says "PRIZE WINNER." The old man's son, Davy, asks the receptionist if this happens often -- that is, do people make the pilgrimage to Lincoln to claim prizes that, of course, they haven't really won? "Sometimes," the woman says. "Mostly old people. Does he have Alzheimer's?" "No," Davy says, "he just believes what people tell him." This exchange epitomizes the brilliant screenplay -- many films would stage the scene in the sweepstakes office with outrage and the screenwriter might devise a lengthy, and poetic, speech about trust and honesty and the guilelessness of the "Greatest Generation." Payne eschews this for a Midwestern and laconic response that is stoic and all the more devastating for its Nebraskan understatement. At the extreme limits of realism, a film like this will be tested, and evaluated, by its audience in exactly those terms -- it is hyper-real and, accordingly, any mis-step, any note of falsity, is weirdly amplified by the fact that most of the picture feels completely authentic. A couple of scenes are too aggressively emphatic -- this includes a sequence in which Davy, the son, punches a small-town bully in a bar. The dialogue is so precisely Nebraskan that it seems a shame that many of the players, all of them drawn from the small-towns where the movie was shot, aren't quite up to the challenge of authentically delivering their lines -- many of the bit parts speak like Community College actors, in voices just a tad bit too chirpy and over-inflected. There are several dissolves that belong in another film -- three dissolves in the pre-title sequence that felt subtly wrong to me and two dissolves that I thought were too showy, and too "filmic" in an otherwise almost perfect sequence in which the family members visit the old home farm. The ending of the movie is slightly contrived, although it feels satisfying -- I just wonder if the sense of satisfaction is honestly earned. My daughter and several other audience members didn't like the fact that the film is shot in very controlled and beautiful black and white. I am a member of dying generation of cinesthetes who feel that black and white adds to the realism of a film. To me, black and white is not subtracting something from the image, but, in fact, adding an additional element, a kind of warrant of photographic truth. But I must concede that many intelligent filmgoeres today experience black and white as a deprivation, as removing something significant from the image. I will defend Payne's black and white with two arguments. First, the black and white is justified by the way that it causes us to experience Will Forte's performance as Davy in the film. Forte is a famous comedian and well-known from an extended stint on Saturday Night Live. Here he is cast against type as a sad-sack loser, a man whose huge melancholy eyes tell an indelible story of defeat and failure. In color, the actor would be Will Forte -- this is because we have always seen and imagined this comedian in color. But in black and white Forte's features (and this is true of Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach, playing the menacing small-town bully) don't stand out -- he doesn't seem to be a movie star or a celebrity; his hangdog expression and drooping face fit in with the other faces that the film so lovingly presents to us. Second, black and white film is about light. Conversely, color is, of course, about tint and hue -- that is the way colors appear to us in the film's design. "Nebraska" is about a landscape in which the light is gradually dying-out -- it's about villages and empty plains and barren roads where the light is failing, where everything is descending into the darkness. Thus, the scene in which Will Forte's character drives his gravely ill father to Norfolk, Nebraska for medical treatment is staged as a trip toward blurry lights, standing out in an obscure pattern in the darkness. On the great plains, the light is going out. Thus, Payne's imagery of Bruce Dern's halo of white hair rim-lit and glowing and the repeated shots of dawn, the sky washed-out and vaguely bright while the earth looks cold and dark, are programmatic -- the film's use of bright and dark stages a sort of elegaic rage "against the dying of the light," something that I think would not be as effective if the film were shot in color.

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” feels like a screwball comedy about the improbable subject of bi-polar disorder. The movie’s tone is manic, itself, and the script is wild;u voluble -- everyone talks a mile a minute and, at times, all the characters seem to be shouting at one another. Many of the scenes have the vibrancy and emotional energy of early Scorsese -- ethnic East Coast city-dwellers clashing in rooms that seem too small, the camera wiggling here and there through the controlled chaos. Although the premise of the film is fundamentally bogus, the picture’s romantic appeal carries the day, propelling the audience through a series of events, most of them ridiculously improbable, toward a happy ending that completely violates everything that we know about the characters. But this is the appeal of a film about love -- we want to see the characters triumph over adversity and fall into one another’s arms at the end of the movie and, since the romantic leads are compelling and attractive, deserving of happiness despite their flaws, we are willing to suspend disbelief and accept the film as a pleasant, even uplifting, fairy tale. Jennifer Lawrence, playing the damaged young widow Tiffany, carries the film -- her performance is so sexually enticing and magnetic that the movie breaks down your resistance: you are invested in her wild woman, outlaw act and the subtext of vulnerability that Lawrence brings to the foul-mouthed, sexually aggressive character is central to the film’s appeal. Russell’s direction and mise-en-scene is blatantly manipulative: everything revolves around a double climax involving a football game played simultaneously with a lavish dance contest. The heroine mistakes the hero’s intentions and, broken-hearted, flees onto the cold Philadelphia streets, only to be rescued at the last moment by Bradley Cooper, her dance-partner and the man she has labored to seduce throughout the entire picture. Cooper's character raising down the chilly Philadelphia streets to embrace Tiffany is the hoariest of movie cliches, but one that reliably stirs the audience. Before we reach the ending, there are montages scored to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s languorous duet, “Girl from the North Country,” lots of ferocious family squabbles, fist-fights, and all sorts of frenzied, mile-a-minute dialogue. The most effective tear-jerker of all time, “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” is deployed on the soundtrack at a key moment and there isn’t a dry eye in the house. It’s all shameless but compelling and I liked the picture. A moment’s thought, of course, will persuade you that contrary to the film’s narrative implications, having bi-polar disorder (or obsessive compulsive syndrome) is not much fun and the relationship between the two principal characters is doomed -- at least, doomed in a real world to which “Silver Linings Playbook” bears only a tangential relationship. But the picture’s blithe tone, and its last half, the can-do Rocky-style dance contest plot that completely contradicts the doom-ridden first half of the film, pretty much overcomes your objections. And, what the hell, the picture wasn’t really realistic to begin with -- the same Irish cop appears reliably every time the characters get into trouble and everyone is always fighting with everyone else and true love is always just around the corner. Robert DeNiro performs impressively as the manic-depressive hero’s father, clearly the genetic source of the mental illness afflicting Bradley Cooper’s character -- it’s DeNiro’s best work for years. Philadelphia is photogenic and the film’s climax, the camera snaking and gliding through the dance competition channels Scorsese’s moving camera in “Goodfellas” -- whip pans, expressionistic colors, and enormous, sexually charged close-ups. I'm not willing to believe that love cures bipolar disorder. But I'm willing to indulge fantasies of that kind.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Room 237

“Room 237” is a cleverly constructed film essay about various interpretive approaches to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 picture, “The Shining.” The movie contains a dozen signature sequences from “The Shining” subjected to voice-over exegesis by five “critics.” I have placed quotation marks around the word “critics” because I am not certain as to how these analysts should be characterized. Obviously, all five are profoundly intelligent, although in a misguided sort of way, and, clearly, each of the speakers is obsessed with “The Shining” and has devoted enormous intellectual resources to explicating the film -- albeit with curiously idiosyncratic results: the film, it turns out, is a secret code manifesting themes apparently remote from Stephen King's source novel and Kubrick's elegant horror film. The speakers occupy an uneasy territory between film criticism and rabid paranoia with cabbalistic overtones. The symbolic images that the interpreters discover in the film are mostly peculiarities in the set decoration, things set on shelves, pictures on the walls or peeping around corners in the edge of the frame, odd trademarks and puzzling lapses in continuity. In one sequence, shown frame-by-frame, the speaker identifies various oddities in a tracking shot showing Nicholson’s character meeting his boss (and an enigmatic factotum) in the lobby of the Overlook Hotel. The exegete has determined that Nicholson is reading a copy of “Playgirl” and has manipulated the image to decipher aspects of the image that have probably never been visible before the advent of Blu-Ray. (In other words, the interpreter is seeing things in the picture that could not have been seen in VHS or on ordinary DVD transfers or even when the film was projected in the theater). The “Playgirl” magazine, when examined CSI-style, turns out to feature an article about incest, a subject that the narrator interpreting the image finds implicit in the film. Then, the frame-by-frame scrutiny of this sequence yields a fleeting glimpse of a woman walking away from the camera wearing a football jersey with the number 13 on its back -- obviously a bad omen. In another sequence, a narrator tracks the geometry of the child’s Big Wheel explorations of the Overlook Hotel. This analysis yields a moment that I found spine-tingling in its oddity -- Kubrick clearly conceived the transit made by the child within a concept of the hotel’s corridors and public places that is strangely, and I would submit, meaninglessly detailed and geometrically consistent: for just an instant, we see at the very edge of a frame a balustrade that is visible in shots of the Great Hall, a visual cue that establishes an architectural relationship between different levels of the hotel and different spaces within the building but something that is also completely gratuitous -- an audience member not obsessed with the film to the extent of watching it frame-by-frame would not notice this detail. These spatial relationships can be used to build models of the hotel and show that certain key scenes seem to take place directly above or below one another. I am convinced that this sort of pattern exists in “The Shining”. But I am not persuaded that this pattern means anything -- rather, it seems some sort of obsessive jigsaw / cross-word puzzle solving aspect of the director’s imagination, that is, an arbitrary patterning similar to the structures used by Oulipo writers like Georges Perec. The film’s stance toward its brilliant lunatic exegetes is unclear -- we hear their theories and it isn’t obvious whether we should be amused, alarmed, or persuaded by their interpretations. As a result, the film is labyrinthine itself and rather disquieting. One theorist argues that Kubrick uses pervasive Indian imagery (the Overlook hotel has Navajo-themed decor) to recount the genocide inflicted upon Native Americans -- this is argued on the basis of several shots showing Calumet baking powder prominently displayed in the background of the image. (I suspect Kubrick’s use of the brightly distinctive trademark owes more to Andy Warhol and is motivated by the product’s colorful packaging more than any symbolic reference to the peace-pipe. Michael Herr, commenting on the scene in “Eyes Wide Shut” in which the rich man, while shooting pool on a red billiard table, explains the orgy to Tom Cruise, wrote something to the effect that the scene was about the “red table” and that its color was the raison d’etre for the entire sequence -- in other words suggesting that formal and pictorial considerations motivate much of Kubrick’s imagery, more so, than thematic concerns.) Another theorist believes the film is replete with sexual imagery of demons and monstrous intercourse, all represented subliminally. One critic focuses on an image of a German typewriter and the number “42” repeated continuously in the film, to claim that the movie encodes a series of references to the Holocaust of the European Jews. (This exegete, by the way, doesn't seem to know that Kubrick's wife was the daugher of the notorious German director, Harlan Veit, the man who made"Jud Suess.") Another theorist, noting the pervasive dissolves between scenes (you see one image superimposed on another) decides that the film must be viewed both backward and forward, running two projectors at the same time to create a continuous superimposition that is, then, closely studied for clues. Most remarkably, a man named Jay Weidner believes that the film shows Kubrick’s self-loathing, reaching a homicidal/suicidal frenzy, at his complicity at faking the images of the Apollo moon-landing. This theory, brilliantly argued, reaches a scary climax when the little endangered child in the movie stands up to confront the ghosts of the murdered twin girls and we see that he is wearing a tee-shirt showing a rocket and labeled “Apollo.” Weidner cites so much evidence for his bizarre theory that, for a moment, you think that he must be onto something. The movie’s director (or really the curator for the vast collection of clips), Rodney Asher sets himself the task of creating a visual analog for the wacky associations that the interpretive voices urge upon us -- he cuts the film as a collage of references, often supporting one or the other of the interpretive theories by quick cuts from other Kubrick films. You have the sense that there is an infinite system of correspondences that can be made between the various pictures, connections that even the obsessive exegetes haven’t seen -- although Asher makes the connections visually. Even more startling is Asher’s tendency to associate Kubrick imagery with other films. As an example, at the start of the film, there is some discussion about conspiracies and paranoia and, suddenly, we see a young Robert Redford darting out of the frame and entering a sinister-looking underground parking garage. What Kubrick movie is this? But, it isn’t a Kubrick film at all -- rather a reference to “All the President’s Men”, that is, the locus classicus of seventies paranoia. In this way, Asher connects the Kubrick imagery to films as disparate as Murnau’s “Faust” and Dario Argento’s “Demons.” The movie is fascinating but, of course, goes nowhere because with this sort of obsession there is no destination in sight -- the journey is all that matters

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Chekhovian Motifs

Some films are so implacably weird, and, yet, so indelible in impact, that the movie presents itself as an object for astounded contemplation and, of course, further study. This is my response to Kira Muratova's 2002 Ukrainian film "Chekhovian Motifs." Based on an unfinished Chekhov play and a short story, the film sutures together two narratives: on an impoverished farm, a father quarrels with his son, a student, while the rest of their large family, more or less, ignores the increasingly melodramatic contretemps; at a nearby church, a fat man is marrying a beautiful younger woman -- unfortunately, the interminable ceremony is marred by the appearance of the fat man's mistress who has committed suicide by poison the preceding night. As indicated by the title, both stories share certain motifs -- eyeglasses, bizarre non sequitur conversations, and some of the characters in the two episodes display a distinct family resemblance. A broader thematic structure links the two narratives: both involve crowds of people who simply ignore the febrile accelerating chaos around them until, suddenly, the mask slips and they go berserk. In the first plot, a tight-lipped dour wife hectors her husband unmercifully about giving money to their son, a whiny, scrawny adolescent student with a fingernails-on-chalkboard high-pitched voice. The father, who we have just seen combing his eyebrows (this is the Ukraine after all) and chanting to himself that he is "handsome, handsome, handsome", completely ignores his wife's nagging -- in fact, the ostensible subject of the nagging, the loathsome son, also ignores his mother's harangue. But, then, suddenly, the father explodes, whinnying like a horse, hurling his spectacles into the soup and, covering his head with a quilt, spinning around and around in circles shrieking -- this gesture rhymes in an eerie way with a manipulated video image of a ballerina, also pirouetting in circles as she dances to Saint-Saens. This image seems displayed as a kind of hologram in a little living room near the kitchen where the father is bellowing in rage -- the white dancer appearing against a jet-black background where a little semen-colored froth mirrors her motion is like something from one of David Lynch's early films, a startling, beautiful, and, also, frightening study in the whitest of whites contrasting with the most dense, and inky, black. Muratova structures the family quarrel around eating: we see farm animals chomping on their grain, piglets suckling on a sow, workmen swilling vodka and eating black bread, and, of course, the family all gathered together at their purgatorial dinner-table. When the shrieking gets the loudest, one of the smaller children simply falls asleep. Later, the student maniacally pumps air into the tire of his motorcycle while his fat sister fantasizes about the boy punishing their father by committing suicide by taking poison -- another motif connecting the episodes. In the next shot, worthy of Buster Keaton, we see the kid on foot -- the tire didn't hold any air -- hoofing it to the train-station, dressed in an ill-fitting (much too large) suit and ostentatiously carrying a cane -- skinny and bespectacled, he look like James Joyce out for a stroll. A gangster in a big car picks up the kid and agrees to drive him to town if the boy will show him the way to the church where the wedding is about to start. There is a musical interlude that is very beautiful and, then, we see cars converging on the country church, comically roaring into the muddy parking lot, limousines synchronized and fender to fender in an agressive chrome tete-a-tete. The wedding guests are all grotesque: various species of sexual perverts, grinning morons, old hags, and dwarfish mannequins, all of them rubbing together and prancing with disarticulated, inscrutable gestures into the church. The crowd seems to be packed with transvestites and the bride looks like the heroine from a silent movie or one of Warhol's porno films. Two handsome priests preside over the endless ceremony, chanting and singing and completely ignoring the Rabelaisian chaos that threatens to erupt among the spectators to the wedding. In the midst of the service, a woman with her face shrouded in a shawl suddenly appears, rising up from the floor, and the sybaritic congregation, who look like extravagantly depraved refugees from a von Stroheim orgy, laugh and mock her. But, later, when the plump groom recognizes the woman as his dead mistress, rumors begin to spread and no one can talk of anything but the apparition. The contrast between the solemn liturgy, the priests single-mindedly performing their ritual, loving filmed with halo-like rim-lighting, and the squalid chatter of the wedding guests is extraordinary and programmatic -- it is like the contrast between the ballerina and the squabbling family members or the clash in tone created by the beautiful choral music interlude juxtaposed with the gargoyle-like grotesques gathered for the wedding. Muratova seems to design the film to contain the most violent and improbable contrasts possible, an effect dramatized by the spectacularly high-contrast black and white camera-work. Muratova was 71 when she completed this film, and, although often censored by Soviet authorities, she's been making movies for more than 40 years. Clearly, she is a director who warrants attention and close study.

Monday, December 2, 2013


“Kanal” is the Polish word for “sewer.” Andrzej Wajda’s 1957 film bearing that name documents the final desperate days of the Warsaw Uprising in World War II. The movie begins as a fairly conventional combat picture. We are introduced to a small battalion of ragged insurgents: the camera tracks along their company as a voice-over identifies some of the men. The soldiers are defending a Warsaw suburb against German attack and have been surrounded. They expect to die. The men are predictably handsome and gallant. Among their number are two attractive (and buxom) young women, each romantically attached to one of the troops. The insurgents are commanded by a tough-as-nails Lieutenant who looks like a character from a sixties’ era WW II comic book. The camera glides through horrific ruins (the film was shot in the actual debris of Warsaw in 1955-56) and there are some unconvincing battle scenes. All of this is competent stuff, but unimpressive. The men loiter in a ruined mansion and a musician tries to play the out-of-tune piano. The love affairs develop a little and there is lots of pessimistic talk and cigarette smoking. Some of the men get drunk on home-brew. Before the big German assault, the insurgents are ordered into a chaotic town-square that is under German bombardment. The square is packed with panicked civilians, hysterical women searching for lost children, and smoke drifts from burning buildings. The musician has called his home in downtown Warsaw and learns that the Germans are rounding people up and burning them alive with flamethrowers. “Where are you?” the man’s wife asks him on the telephone. “With the Resistance,” he says. The woman is incredulous: “there still is a Resistance?” she asks. The company of insurgents descends into the sewers via a small manhole and the rest of the movie takes place underground. This part of the film is extraordinarily gripping, a peculiar combination of expressionist chiaroscuro and nauseating realism that has the flavor of a Hammer horror film. The sewer tunnels are brilliantly lit but the imagery somehow suggests darkness -- this is accomplished by pouring chiaroscuro light at oblique angles onto black and glistening brick walls and vaults; the men carry flashlights which appear as bright spears of light in their hands and, when they light matches, these also flare convincingly, although as highlights against tunnels that have been flooded with movie light to make everything legible. The men and women, who strip to their chemises like the stars of a Hammer Dracula film, are smeared with filth and the water through which they crawl and trudge is turgid, syrupy with oatmeal-like feces. The effect is one of people trapped in Stygian darkness although, in point of fact, the sets are well-lit and the dirty, befouled water gleams like the streets of a film noir metropolis. The extended sequence in the sewer tunnels is convincingly nightmarish. The tunnels are a labyrinthine maze and the group of men gets split into small parties, all of them ultimately doomed. The musician goes mad and, after quoting Dante’s “Inferno” wanders the watery galleries, playing an ocarina like some perverse version of Orpheus. The lovers make it to the light but only to find their escape from the sewer blocked by bars through which they can not pass. People drown and are suffocated by methane fumes and the wounded bellow in the dark passageways like maimed bears or wolves. The lieutenant finally makes it to the surface. But he has lost his whole troop. (In a disturbing scene, we see most of the men squirming their way to the surface only to be captured by Germans who have been busily shooting civilians against a gore-stained wall, corpses heaped like garbage against the bloody masonry.) When the lieutenant finds that he is alone except for a subordinate who has lied to him about the troops following behind, he executes the sole survivor of his company and descends into the sewer again, his hand holding a revolver the last part of his body to disappear into the underground. The subject of the Warsaw Uprising was fraught with political complications when the film was made. Apparently, the Red Army stood by idly on the opposite side of the Vistula, allowing the Poles to be butchered so that they would be unable to resist the Soviet occupation of their country. For this reason, Wajda has to present the Uprising in a way that shows it to be wholly futile and degrading. The Polish patriots are like sewer rats, drowning in excrement, and their heroism is meaningless. Wajda could not depict the Uprising as courageous, nor could he provide any political context -- the result is a film that is mostly an expressionistic horror-show. But as a horror-film, some of the movie’s scenes are incomparably effective -- the tunnels gleam with malevolent eerie light and water foams with fog, misting the Gothic vaulted vistas so that the sewer looks like the moors in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Faces leer and corpses dangle grotesquely from the grates of the manhole covers. We aren’t far from a Roger Corman production from the early sixties and, indeed, some of the performances include grimaces and staring eyes, quotes from “The Inferno” like something that Vincent Price might intone in “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “The Conqueror Worm”. It’s horrible enough but also magnificently beautiful with, perhaps, just the slightest element of kitsch thrown in for a good measure.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


A pretty, if dim-witted, gangster picture, John Hillcoat’s “Lawless” concerns three hillbilly moonshiners, the Bondurant brothers in Franklin County, Virginia. The film purports to be extracted from real life, a “true story”, but the narrative, at least, is implausible -- the hillbillies act as if they are cunning tough-guys but they are forever falling into ambushes that every dullard in the audience can see coming. Nick Cave wrote the script and it consists of guttural threats and whispers so that nothing much is intelligible -- it doesn’t much matter because the film is nothing but reprisal and counter-reprisal with a little mild romance intervening between castrations and throat-slittings. The film has too many close-ups and the action sequences are gory without being interesting. As is the case with most Hollywood productions, the scenery and the incidental details are atmospheric, rich, and fascinating. We see tattered-looking cabins and moonshining stills out of a Walker Evans’ photograph, lush hollows, and a mountain all lit up with the stars of little independent moonshine distilleries hidden in the Yucatan-like jungles on its slopes. There is a fine shape-singing scene in a church and some interesting interiors of an old road-house that the Bondurant brothers operate 20 miles from town. Jessica Chastain shows her breasts and plays the role of the gun moll to the oldest brother, Forest Bondurant acted by Tom Hardy, a sort of dull-eyed and brutish Kevin Costner lookalike. Shia Laboeuf, if that’s his name, is annoying as the youngest brother, too kind and gentle before the massacres begin to even butcher a hog -- of course, Michael Corleone-style he will take up the gun and murder people before the film is over. Guy Pearce plays a variant on the Jack Palance character in “Shane” -- the fearsome dandy in black, an assassin who is also, apparently, some kind of sexual pervert. The gun battles and atrocities are, more or less, realistically staged but this is the kind of film in which gangsters engaged in a vicious gang war pause, now and then, to pursue their romantic interest, something that usually leads to more killings and hostage-taking. It’s also the kind of film in which the good guys engage in harangues when they have their evil enemies at their mercy allowing them to escape so that the film can proceed to more killings and rapes. When we meet a character named “Cricket” it’s pretty obvious that this hapless fellow will be a victim of the gang war -- he’s a character actor and, more or less, expendable. The film looks realistic and is fairly gripping until it isn’t -- and this is most of the overwrought, operatic, and poorly written second half of the movie The picture is pointless and a waste of time with one exception -- a couple times we hear Lou Reed’s “White Light/White Heat” and it sounds like an ancient Appalachian tune; in one instance, the great Ralph Stanley keens the song and it has a primeval authenticity better than anything else in the film.

Sarah Silverman: We are Miracles

Sarah Silverman’s HBO special,"We are Miracles," a comedy show performed for 39 embarrassed-looking patrons of a small dimly-lit club, isn’t a whole lot of fun. Silverman’s schtick is making outrageous and offensive statements, daring the audience to laugh, and, then, abusing the audience for indulging her with its laughter. This strategy would be effective if the audience were laughing spontaneously. But the audience understands how the gig is structured, grasps that laughter will be met with Silverman’s derisory scorn and so, we sense, that the audience is indulging her even before she draws attention to that fact -- the audience laughs because Sarah is cute and her pouting little-girl features don’t fit with her potty-mouth and the contrast between her pampered Jewish princess appearance and her vulgarity carries enough shock-value to make the crowd giggle a little regardless of whether what she says is actually funny. The audience laughs because it understands that its laughter is part of the joke: see, they are dumb and crass enough even to laugh at something that’s cruel and unfunny and that’s supposed to be funny in itself. Some of her stuff is well-observed and, like many successful stand-up comedians, there is a curious philosophical dimension to her material -- we laugh because the alternative would be something far more terrible and painful. As an example, Silverman blurts out that “9'-11 widows are famous for giving the best hand-jobs.” She pouts, looks earnest, and says that this has been proven by a study conducted by the University of North Carolina. The audience is uneasy and people laugh uncertainly. Then, Silverman denounces her spectators saying that they should be ashamed of themselves for believing her slander against the “9-11 widows” merely because she “attributed that finding to the University of North Carolina.” Shrugging her shoulders, she asks her LA audience if they’ve ever even been to North Carolina. In this way, Silverman says something terrible (although the incessant whining of 9-11 victims certainly has caused some of us to think bad things about them that we would never dare say), then, takes the offensive statement back, and, then, bizarrely enough imputes it to the audience. She does variations on this strategy for about forty minutes. But the HBO special has to fill an hour and so Silverman has a prologue before the show in which she exchanges racial slurs with a group of Mexican low-rider gangster-types (racial invective is always good as a time-filler) and, then, ends her show with a humorless song about being a diva, the lyrics consisting of the word “cunt” sung over and over again with various inflections. Once again, Silverman’s comic strategy is obvious -- she works the contrast between her pretty, well-trained church- choir-girl voice (she sounds like someone who would sing in the Xmas concert put on by St. Olaf College) and the raunchy material in her lyrics -- in this case, reduced to a single dirty word that she just repeats ad nauseum until she has wasted enough time to end her show. It’s stupidly effective. I like Sarah Silverman because I think she’s cute and I think her dirty mouth makes her even more cute. This isn’t Wittgenstein, I’m afraid, but more a matter of a perverse personal predilection.